Portrait of the Regency: An Artist’s Love Story

Sir Thomas Lawrence was handsome (the artist William Hoare thought he would make a splendid model for Christ’s portrait) and possessed of an ability to fascinate (no one could concentrate on an individual as he could). The great actress of the late eighteenth century, Sarah Siddons, frequently invited him to her home and he became quite a fixture in her circle of artists and friends.

For a century after his death, his romantic entanglement with her two daughters was blamed for their untimely deaths.

His biographers were a little more charitable, calling him an old flirt.

Sir Thomas Lawrence, engraving by Cousins from the Artist's self-portrait

Sir Thomas Lawrence, engraving by Cousins from the Artist’s self-portrait

Then, a century after these events, correspondence written by Mrs. Siddons and her daughters to intimate friends of theirs was published, throwing new light on the Artist’s alleged double-desertion. Letters from Mrs. Siddons reveal her anguish over her daughters’ ill health, along with her great admiration for Thomas Lawrence. There, too, are the girls’ great affection for “Mr. Tom.”

"(Sarah Siddons) was tragedy personified." -- Hazlitt

“(Sarah Siddons) was tragedy personified.” — Hazlitt

It is not clear when Lawrence made his acquaintance with Mrs. Siddons’ two daughters. Perhaps it was the elder daughter Sally who first enjoyed his attentions, as many used to think.

"..she was not strictly beautiful, but her countenance was like her mother's, with brilliant eyes, and a remarkable mixture of frankness and sweetness.." Thomas Campbell, Sarah Siddons' biographer

“..she was not strictly beautiful, but her countenance was like her mother’s, with brilliant eyes, and a remarkable mixture of frankness and sweetness..” Thomas Campbell, Sarah Siddons’ biographer on her daughter, Sally Siddons

From Mrs. Siddons’ correspondence, however, it is clear that Lawrence first sought the hand of her younger daughter, Maria.

"..more beautiful than her mother." Maria Siddons by Lawrence

“..more beautiful than her mother.” Maria Siddons by Lawrence

His suit was denied, for Maria’s parents believed she was too immature to contemplate such a step as marriage. Mr. Siddons, in particular, thought a man who couldn’t manage his funds shouldn’t be trying to get leg-shackled. Further courtship therefore had to be made clandestinely, in the Artist’s studio in Greek street, through the assistance of one Miss Bird.

Sounds like a Heyer set-up, huh?

Both girls had always suffered from respiratory ailments, perhaps caught from a trip to the Continent when they were younger. Maria in particular would suffer attacks that left her bed-ridden. When the doctor believed her condition quite grave, her pulse “galloping,” and could not assure her survival, Mrs. Siddons agreed to the marriage. Mr. Siddons agreed to relieve the Artist of his debts.

Far from sounding unhappy, Sally wrote to Miss Bird to tell her the news:

“I think Maria has as fair a prospect of happiness as any mortal can desire.”

— Sally Siddons to Miss Bird, January 5, 1798

An Artist’s Love Story, told in the Letters of Sir Thomas Lawrence, Mrs. Siddons, and her Daughters; Edited by Oswald Knapp (1904)

If illness was not working its evil way to thwart romance, certainly the methods to combat consumption were. Maria’s doctor was convinced that confinement was the best remedy, away from others, in their London house, at the very least until April. One acquaintance prophetically noted that “shutting a young half-consumptive girl up in one unchanged air for three or four months would make anyone of them ill, and ill-humoured too, I should think. ”

And then–

“Mr. Lawrence has found that he was mistaken in (Maria’s) character, his behavior has evidently been altered towards her, as I told you..”

— Mrs. Siddons to Miss Bird, March 5, 1798

The Artist was released from his promise to Maria, in the most quiet and discreet manner possible. Maria was eventually released from confinement and the family left for Bath, where she was left in the care of one Mrs. Pennington*, a devoted friend of Mrs. Siddons, so that the latter could resume her acting tour, as she did every summer, accompanied by Sally.

When Maria took a turn for the worse, Sally returned to her sister’s side, just missing a visit by “Mr. L.,” whose sister lived in Birmingham. The young man then sought an audience with her mother, seeking permission to pay his addresses to Sally, but Mrs. Siddons was not exactly encouraging.

The Artist did not take this well and, to her great consternation, Mrs. Siddons next reports to Mrs. P that he had disappeared. She warned that good lady he might very well be on his way to visit her and the girls:

“I pray God that his phrenzy may not impel him to some desperate action!”

Sure enough, the Artist, newly arrived under an assumed name, presented himself to Mrs. P at her very doorstep and announced his love for Sally:

“My name is Lawrence, and you, then, know that I stand in the most afflicting situation possible! A man charg’d (I trust untruly in their lasting effect) with having inflicted pangs on one lovely Creature which, in their bitterest extent, he himself now suffers from her sister!”

Mrs. P was all cordiality and firmness,  notwithstanding his threats to run off to Switzerland and/or commit suicide (!) Still, she was well aware of Mrs. S’s profound fear of scandal and allowed the Artist to see Sally briefly, and by these means induced him to leave the vicinity.

Get over it, she later wrote to him. His response was predictable:

“Have you ever lov’d and are ignorant that one BASE ACTION in a moment root out esteem, while love’s fibres, tenacious of their hold, take many, and days, and months, and longer, to tear from the fond heart?”

— Lawrence to Mrs. P, Sept. 8, 1798

Meanwhile, Sally wrote ominously to Miss Bird that Maria was dying, and that the invalid was adamant that Mr. L is “our common enemy.” It seems Maria had become obsessed with a novel wherein the hero had fallen in love with his patron’s two daughters, had used them both cruelly, and with Tragic Consequences.

When Maria finally succumbed to her illness, Mrs. P. related the deathbed scene to Mr. L in a way that was not calculated to soothe a man of his passion. She spared no detail, and dwelt particularly upon the promise Maria had extracted from her sister, to never marry “that man.”

“If you can sanctify passion into friendship, still you may be dear to their hearts…I think Sally will not lightly, or easily, make another election; but YOURS she never can, NEVER WILL BE.”

Mrs. P to Mr. L., Oct. 8, 1798

The Artist’s reply, in bold and furious handwriting:

"I have played deeply for her, and you think she will still escape me. I'll tell you a Secret. It is possible she may. Mark the End.

“I have played deeply for her, and you think she will still escape me. I’ll tell you a Secret. It is possible she may. Mark the End.”

Mrs. P, much affronted, replied for the last time that this latest and “unmanly” threat of suicide shall not be regarded and vowed that his letters should be returned unopened.

His reply:

“My mind..is so far quieted by your intelligence, that Remorse is no longer its inhabitant. My crime, I thought, was to Tenderness–I cannot give its expiation to Revenge.

This strange apology did little to soothe Mrs. P, by now so thoroughly aroused that she vented her hurt feelings upon the already distressed Mrs. Siddons, warning the harassed mother that scandal may still pursue them. Sally dutifully responded to Mr. L’s correspondence, assuring him that her decision against their continued relationship was final, and asked for the return of all the letters she’d written to him.

She assured Mrs. P:

“I do not think I shall ever love as I have lov’d that man, but this is certain, I LOVE HIM NO LONGER.”

— Miss Siddons to Mrs. P, Wednesday, Nov. 7

As the years went by, Mrs. P faded from her correspondence. It was to Miss Bird that Sally continued to write of Mr. L. It pained her to see him at parties, she confessed, when meeting his glance was “like an electric stroke to me.” She could scarce pass his house on Greek Street, for “my heart sank within me.” On one occasion, she bowed in his direction several times, but he ignored her.

When Mr. L finally replied to Sally’s demand for her letters, he refused to return them. Until he married, he declared, they would remain in his possession.

He never married and she died in 1803.

 

*To find humor in love, we must rely upon Mr. Pennington.  “Billy,” as he was then known in Bath circles, had tried to kiss one Miss Linton who promptly bit him on the lip. A Mrs. Leever saw the whole, criticizing the young man for his conduct, especially after he had spit blood on the young lady’s cap and burnt it. Billy proceeded to tell Mr. Leever that his old hag of a wife ought to mind her own business. Servants were called to throw the young man out of the Leever residence after he had followed the couple there, slapping the older man and pocketing his wig.

Portrait of the Regency: Vanity and Good Taste

On the eve of the Regency, Miss Eliza Farren was accounted one of the finest actresses of her day. From her first role as Miss Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, to her appearance as Nimeney Pimeney in The Heiress, her skill at playing a variety of characters was like Sir Thomas Lawrence’s in painting them.

Hazlitt speaks of "Miss Farren, with her fine-lady airs and graces, with that elegant turn of her head and motion of her fan and tripping of her tongue." Sir Thomas has captured her winsome nature perfectly.

“Miss Farren, with her fine-lady airs and graces, with that elegant turn of her head and motion of her fan and tripping of her tongue.” — Hazlitt

Around 1790, he painted her portrait, wrapping her elegant figure, tall and slim, in a fur trimmed “john-coat.” Some critics disapproved of this raiment, so at odds with the subject’s summery surroundings. Comments such as these did not concern Sir Thomas. After all, he was the artist.

When the portrait was presented to the Royal Academy, simply entitled “The Actress,” Sir Thomas was roundly attacked for addressing the glorious Miss Farren as a mere hireling on the stage. This criticism needled him, for it was not his art that was at fault, but his taste!

He wrote at once to Miss Farren, knowing one word from her would dispel any criticism by her beloved fans. He apologized for the clumsy way he meant to convey his own admiration for her art, which sprang

“..from the wish that he had that it should be known to be her from the likeness alone, unaided by professional character.”

— Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Letter-Bag, edited by George Somes Layard, with recollections of the artist by Miss Elizabeth Croft (1906)

Two years later, the unsold portrait and its subject had caught the eye of Lord Derby. Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby, was still married to his first wife, but they were separated on account of her affair with the Duke of Dorset. His lordship, through the offices of Miss Farren, offered to buy the painting.

Sir Thomas informed Miss Farren he was willing to sell it, but the price for her portrait was now one-hundred and twenty guineas. She wrote back, expressing her astonishment and chastising him for having forgotten the original quote of sixty guineas. In the end, the besotted Lord Derby possessed himself of the portrait, if not the sitter, for a princely sum of one hundred guineas.

Unfortunately, the picture continued to plague Sir Thomas even after it was delivered. Apologizing for being so “troublesome,” Miss Farren wrote to him of additional criticisms, and would he pretty please alter the picture?

He reminds me of another earl. Or perhaps its because Downton is on.

From this angle, Derby looks a bit like Downton, I daresay.

“One says it is so thin in the figure, that you might blow it away–another that it looks broke off in the middle: in short, you must make it a little fatter, at all events, diminish the bend you are so attached to, even if it makes the picture look ill; for the owner of it is quite distressed about it at present.”

We don’t know if Sir Thomas complied, but in 1797, Miss Farren married her earl, and

“exchanged the tinsel crown of the stage for the very substantial coronet of a countess.”

 

Portrait of the Regency: Face to Face

It’s been said Sir Thomas Lawrence’s legacy was left to “fashionable, virtuoso photography,” and not to the art of painting. His portrait exhibitions attracted large crowds, satisfying the Regency era’s appetite for more than just of glimpse of the rich and famous.

Now one could gaze as long as one liked, without appearing vulgar, on the visage of the Prince Regent, or on the bosom of Lady Blessington.

Exhibition room at Somerset House by Rowlandson and Pugin

In her recollections of Sir Thomas, Miss Elizabeth Croft describes the artist’s interest in physiognomy. After years of portraiture, he became convinced of the power a person’s facial characteristics exercised over their character, and their actions.

Once he rehired a servant he had formerly sacked. It seems the fellow was unable to find a new position, and Sir Thomas knew it was because of his chin:

“..an organ of destructiveness so strongly defined I fear he will never get another place.”

Miss Croft questioned his faith in such reasoning when he showed her a portrait he had sketched of the alleged murderer, John “Murphy” Williams. This was the man who’d been jailed, pending trial, for the notorious Ratcliff Highway murders which occurred near present-day Wapping, London, within a space of twelve days in December, 1811. Much struck by the villain’s pleasant features, she recalled:

This post-mortem sketch of John Williams might very well be by Lawrence

This post-mortem sketch of John Williams might very well be by the artist

I never saw a more beautiful head. The forehead, the finest one could see, hair light and curling, the eyes blue and only half-closed; the mouth singularly handsome, tho’ somewhat distorted, and the nose perfect.”

— Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Letter-bag, edited by George Somes Layard, 1906 (with recollections of the artist by Miss Elizabeth Croft)

How could Ratcliff Highway murderer have such a beautiful head, she asked, when he’d:

“…destroyed not only a father and mother..but an infant a few weeks old in its cradle–and all this for the purpose of rifling the till in a little haberdasher’s shop!”

Sir Thomas chastised her gently, drawing her attention to the similarity of Williams’ chin to that of Governor Wall, hung for acts of cruelty while in charge of a colony on the west coast of Africa. In sketching both, he noted:

“..the formation of the lower jaw was precisely the same–very square, with a peculiar shortness of the chin, and partaking more of the tiger than the human jaw.”

Of his own chin, he admitted:

“..there is some appearance of Fortitude, but wholly unconnected with Reason. Indeed, of that Philosophy which can mould wishes to circumstances and subdue the influences of Passion to those of Fortune, this Countenance has not a Vestige (!)”

He looks a bit sulky, I declare.

Yes, I do see the Fortitude. And Passion.

 

Portrait of the Regency: A Nightmare

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) was a Swiss painter unwelcome in his native country due to some political trouble. He eventually settled in England, where he became a stalwart at the Royal Academy and a master of Romantic painting.

In his spare time, he translated Homer for Cowper and Lavater’s work on physiognomy for England. He later declared, after Mrs. Fuseli had to bar his studio against an infatuated Mary Wollstonecraft:

“I hate clever women. They are only troublesome.”

Henry Fuseli by Northcote

Henry Fuseli by Northcote

Critics called his art, “Rubens in motion.” His figures writhe with violence, his incredible beasts glare fantastically. Regency era sensibilities were most particularly challenged by his painting, “The Nightmare.”

Naturally, Sir Thomas Lawrence couldn’t wait to tell Miss Croft just how timid a fellow this painter of supernatural visions really was.

Fuseli had been invited to spend an evening at a wealthy patron’s country house. After dinner, as the ladies retired to the drawing room, the artist got up from the table and left as well. The gentlemen wondered why the guest of honor had abandoned them but consoled themselves with the notion that foreigners disliked sitting after dinner.

When the ladies returned, without Fuseli, the host demanded of his lady where she’d put him. Remonstrances were exchanged while someone was dispatched to the artist’s room in the event he’d gone there to be sick.

He wasn’t there.

As is often the case with these country house mysteries, a breakthrough came by means of an unexpected observation from “below-stairs.” In this case, it was the lowly footman who found himself the subject of uncomfortable scrutiny when he admitted having directed Fuseli to the garden temple, a noted feature of the estate’s grounds, despite the gathering darkness.

The servant had tried to press upon him certain items for protection:

“What you bring that great big stick for?” asked Mr. Fuseli in his broken English.

“Why, Sir, our house dog is let loose after dark, and as he is rather fierce, you’d better take the stick.”

— — Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Letter-Bag, ed. by George Somes Layard, with recollections by Miss Elizabeth Croft (1906)

Fuseli refused to take either lantern or cudgel, and dismissed the footman upon arriving at the garden fixture. When his hosts at last discovered him, he was still inside, cowering in a state of considerable disorder.

It seems he’d heard loud sniffing at the door soon after he’d been left at the temple, which turned into blood-curdling snarls and growling. Unable and unwilling to leave the temple, and so far removed from the house no one could hear his cries, Fuseli became terrified at the prospect of spending the night in the pagan temple, at the mercy of a demonic dog.

The Nightmare, by Fuseli

The Nightmare, by Fuseli

It was an anecdote Miss Croft declared:

“I am almost ashamed to repeat.”

Thank goodness for lack of scruples.

 

Portrait of the Regency: “To Any Body, Any Where”

Returning to Miss Croft’s remarkable collection of anecdotes recorded of Sir Thomas Lawrence; the following story, while not precisely contemporaneous to the Regency, is nevertheless illuminating of the times.

It concerns the painter’s younger days when he enjoyed the patronage of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. It was she who had engaged him at a young age to draw the portrait of her first child, later known as Lady Carlisle. He was frequently among the Devonshire set as he grew older. Miss Croft surmised that it was this period of his life by which he achieved his air of amusing urbanity.

Regrettably, among her many foibles, the Duchess was quite unable to turn down any application made to her for aid. She made promises she could not keep. She committed largesse she did not have.

One of the Duchess’ good friends was a Mr. Hare (surmised to be Francis Hare-Naylor, grandson of the Bishop of Chichester) a man who apparently knew Georgiana quite well, and was forever heartsick at the scrapes she found herself in. Many of these were of her own making, but few could admonish her like Mr. Hare:

“He had a peculiar talent for reproving a fault without giving offense to the party committing it.”

–Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Letter -bag, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, Elizabeth Croft

Her Grace's portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence--when she was about 25 years of age

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Sir Thomas Lawrence when she was about 25 years of age

Sir Thomas had the opportunity to witness Mr. Hare’s skill in this regard one evening, when he was invited to Her Grace’s salon at Devonshire House. There, the painter joined by several great Whigs of the day, including Mr. Fox and Mr. Sheridan. Mr. Hare was there, too, and of course the Duchess was presiding. However, she jumped up to leave, having remembered she needed to write a letter.

Protestations were heard all round.  Mr. Hare declared he must write the letter in her stead, for her company was too dear to spare.

“.she laughingly inquired how that was possible, as he knew not her correspondent or her business.”

He proceeded to write a letter in full view of the company, full of voluminous expressions of admiration and a longing to serve, followed by a catalogue of many competing commitments to other friends similarly situated and the limitations on her ability to serve same, closing with “new professions of services at some future time.”

Her Grace admitted that the letter would serve her purpose very well, to everyone’s amusement. Even more amused were they as Mr. Hare signed the letter in the Duchess’ name.

But when she dared Mr. Hare to address it properly, the amusement ended.

“He very gravely folded and sealed it, and then wrote, to:

“Any Body, Any Where.”

Georgiana’s eyes filled with tears. It was some time before she could regain her composure, however, Mr. Hare remained in her good graces. Apparently she could not admonish one who knew her so well.

All that's left of Devonshire House--the gilt leopards on the gates

All that’s left of Devonshire House

Portrait of the Regency – “A Miraculous Picture”

Much has been written of Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769 – 1830), self-taught prodigy and “Romantic Portraitist of the Regency.” These illustrations almost always mention Miss Elizabeth Croft, his close friend and supporter.

The days she spent with the Artist and his circle of intimate friends formed the best part of her life, she later declared. Her treasured memento was his acutely melancholic portrait of her dead half-brother (the famous suicide Sir Richard Croft, attending physician at Princess of Wales’ deathbed). Her legacy to us is the collection of anecdotes which Sir Thomas had passed on to her–a brilliant and intimate portrait of Regency society.

There was never anything lover-like between them, as far as anyone could tell. Indeed, Miss Croft served as something rather different to the Artist as she bustled about his studio. She was, as the saying goes, a managing female.

Those old Pan covers were marvelous.

Those old Pan covers were marvelous.

‘Oh, dear!” said Miss Merrivale, stricken. “And I took such pains not to appear to be a managing female!’

‘Are you one?’

‘Yes, but how could I help it?’

— Frederica, by Georgette Heyer

As Sir Thomas Lawrence was in such demand as Europe’s portrait painter, he frequently got behind in his work. Miss Croft was well aware others thought he was indolent and unproductive:

During all this period I can with truth report that he painted from sunrise to sunset, except in the hours that he devoted to the correction of engravings and those of his hurried meals..

— from “Recollections of the Artist,” by Miss Elizabeth Croft, SIR THOMAS LAWRENCE’S LETTER-BAG, Edited by George Somes Layard, 1906

Take Isabella Wolff’s portrait, twelve years in the making.  The sitter was the wife of a Danish official in London, Jens Wolff. She, along with her sisters, had been members of Miss Croft’s circle.  When one of Isabella’s sisters complained about the time it was taking to finish Isabella’s portrait, the artist, stung, promised to finish it as soon as the sitter could be persuaded to return to London.

This she did, but after only a few sittings she was off again, before the portrait could be completed. What remained was the most intricate part of the painting–executing the folds of Mrs. Wolff’s white satin dress. This last was accomplished by reason of Miss Croft donning the “drapery” and sitting for the remainder of the portrait.

Mrs. Jens Wolff by Lawrence

One can only imagine Miss Croft’s gentle impatience.

Right–I‘ll wear the bloody thing.

In the end, Miss Croft was justly proud of her participation, reporting how Mrs. Wolff’s portrait had been given a place of honor at an 1815 exhibition alongside those of Wellington, Blucher and Platoff. The newspapers, she recalled, all agreed that “the lady reading by the lamplight was indeed a miraculous picture.”